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What I Learned from Studying Neuroscience about the Future of Mediation

After studying neuroscience for the past ten years, I have begun to think differently about mediation, and how we help others in general.  Neuroscience is the study of the human nervous system, including the brain.  The brain is in charge of all of our bodily functions.  It also allows us to interact with others as individuals.  Studying the brain provides an in-depth look at human nature and why we behave as we do.   It explains why each of the different styles of mediation works — some of the time:

  • Facilitative mediation is driven by needs and interests. The brain is driven by needs and humans are motivated by both social and self-interest.  Needs lie at the heart of evolution’s reciprocal altruism and of social relationships generally.  The fact that many of our most important needs are unconscious makes this style’s emphasis on interests over positions a winner for the brain;
  • Transformative mediation focuses on the relationship between the parties. It appreciates that stress negatively affects the brain and the body, and is disturbing and distracting in our relationships.  This style’s desire to resolve conflict and potentially transform the relationship into something more productive and workable, or at least less onerous, is a natural motivator; 
  • Narrative mediation knows the brain speaks and learns through stories; that it maintains an ongoing and coherent story of “me.” Building on the constructive nature of the brain, this style uses new narratives to help people reshape old understandings into new beginnings and endings;
  • Insight mediation accepts that the brain needs a moderate challenge to learn. It uses the brain’s associative powers to elicit insights that help us better understand ourselves and reinterpret a conflict situation in non-obvious ways; and finally,
  • Evaluative mediation speaks to the brain’s need for certainty, for fixed points and permanence. It builds on an accumulated knowledge base and provides definitiveness in an otherwise ambiguous situation.


Neuroscience even has an answer for why many people initially prefer court to mediation: court appeals to our inner sense of fairness and need for revenge; it provides us with a feeling of certainty and rightness, and allows us to tell our story and place blame; it addresses our need to defer to dominance and rank, and lets us to equate survival with winning. 

Early in my study of neuroscience, Bernie Mayer, an author of many wonderful books on mediation, cautioned me not to take a reductionist approach, not to come up with a “neuroscience-based approach to mediation.”  Staying true to that goal, in thinking about neuroscience and what it means for mediation, I have come up with the following thoughts:

  1. Mediation is a process among equals. Our brains are more alike than they are different: the cognitive and behavior functions supported by human brain networks “are, for the most part, shared among all individuals” (Sporns, Olaf. The Networks of the Brain, p. 67. MIT Press, 2011). This is called functional homeostasis, and it’s been suggested that it occurs because network regulation happens at a global level rather than locally, which allows the brain as a whole to remain stable in the face of constant change (Ibid., p. 68 citing Prinz et al. (2004) and Marder & Goaillard (2006)).  Even the sensory systems within a single brain handle diverse inputs — from sound waves to touch — in generally the same way.  As people, we are driven by similar needs, experience the same emotions, and share many of the same desires.  Every mediation session is among equals – no one is in charge or sits at the head of the table.
  1. Survival comes first. As a mediator, I am no longer surprised that survival is almost always the first reaction in a mediation session. While it’s generally to a psychological more than a physical threat, the brain interprets both as a threat to existence and re-acts accordingly; one could feel like an angry, frustrated animal backed into a corner, all the way to a cold-calculating hunter about to pounce on its prey. 
  1. Everyone’s reality is different; it has to be. While our brains are exceedingly similar, each brain works with different raw material: nearly 70% of the structure of a human infant’s brain is added post-birth (Cozolino, Louis. The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, p. 40 citing Schore (1994). W.W. Norton & Company, 2006).  That means that the bulk of the brain’s connections are experience-dependent — they are added post-birth and depend on what happens to us.  The brain then creates our perception by combining inputs from the outside world with past experience.  The entire process is constructive and builds from the bottom-up: our memories, rules, and expectations get incorporated into the properties of the stimuli and shape what we ultimately see (Kandel, Eric R. et al. Principles of Neural Science, 5th edition, pp. 556-557. McGraw Hill Medical, 2013).  The brain thus shapes both our reality and our experience of it.  The net result is that we really cannot know the experience of another person, which reinforces the mediator’s mantra: in a mediation session, a mediator never makes recommendations.  How could we possibly know what will work for someone else?
  1. More than interests, the quality of our relationships, threats to cares, etc., conflict involves a threat to self. We are not born with a sense of self, we design and hone one.  It is given to us through our relationships and societal constructs, and it becomes the principle around which we organize our life.  The self is not real; it’s a series of neural connections, a set of fixed ideas.  Yet the brain works hard to maintain a consistent sense of self, it’s one of the brain/mind’s primary jobs.  Conflict erupts when our sense of self feels threatened; when how we see or want to see our self and the world that self is part of, feels under attack.
  1. Individual differences matter. We have different genetic make-ups, levels of connectivity in the brain, sensitivity to internal and external inputs, unique thresholds for stress and other emotions, to name just a few.   To be of value, mediation has to draw on these differences to elicit how the parties make sense.   Making sense means how something fits with the person’s past, with what someone “knows about how the world works” (Sousa, David A. How the Brain Learns, 4th edition, p. 52. Corwin, 2011).  Making sense of the world is another one of the brain’s primary jobs, and doing so reveals individual mind patterns. Mind patterns are repetitive thoughts and behaviors that become unconscious over time.  And in the brain, practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent.   Mind patterns govern how we make sense of a situation, our role in it, and the other parties involved.But if we want people to take away something more from mediation than a written agreement, the process of mediation must also elicit how the parties find meaning.  Meaning-making is yet another primary job of the brain and pertains to how something is relevant to the individual.  Meaning-making, too, is governed by mind patterns – habitual ways of thinking and acting first created and then reinforced by past experience.  Between the two, meaning is more important than making sense (Ibid., p. 54) because meaning affects how we learn.   It’s not enough to just understand the conflict-at-hand; mediation has to cultivate an understanding of how and why it’s important to each person involved.
  1. The goal of mediation is to generate more information. The prefrontal cortical area of the brain is not the rational brain; it doesn’t have veto power over our behavior nor can it ensure we do “the right thing.”  We can fully engage the prefrontal cortex, weigh the various options, meditate on our choices, and still make a lousy decision.  The prefrontal cortex is more intentional than it is rational; it is built on a foundation of sub-cortical structures and owes its prowess to those layers.  Rather than an executive controller, the value of the PFC lies in its generative powers: in its capacity to take in more and more information, re-sort it, reorganize it, and realign is so it makes sense and has meaning in a new way.  The goal of mediation is to walk in with one explanation and walk out with another, deeper and wider understanding.  Such an understanding should help individuate the other person or people involved and begin to take into account the effect we have on others.
  1. This brings us back to the beginning: Mediation is a process among equals. For humans, change is a slow and hard process, habits unfold automatically, and we seem to naturally revert back to the path of least effort.  Everyone in a mediation session has something to learn.  Beneath our everyday mind patterns lies a set of expectations we each carry around with us about the world: rules about how things should happen, what we’re entitled to, what fairness means, etc.  To the extent that mediation provides even a glimpse of one of these mind patterns to anyone involved – in addition to evoking a new understanding of the situation and the other party – it should be considered a huge success.

Camaron Thomas

Camaron J. Thomas, Ph.D. is returning to mediation after several years’ hiatus writing her latest book, The Wisdom of the Brain – Neuroscience for Helping Professionals.  This book is now available at or through your local independent book store.  Also, visit for more information. MORE >

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